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Scaling The Mountain
To film a story set in the most remote mountainous region in the United States-filled with beautiful yet dangerous landscapes-Abu-Assad insisted that all exterior mountain scenes be shot in a way that mirrored the life-threatening conditions that Alex and Ben are forced to endure without the use of green screen. That meant finding a location accessible for filming that had all the same imposing mountain peaks and blankets of deep, undisturbed snow that awaits the travelers, and recruiting a team behind the camera who would not be cowed by working under inhospitable conditions.

"The movie's kind of simple when you think about it-it's two people and a dog on a mountain," says Ready. "And yet it's highly complex in terms of production and how you're going to achieve a movie that takes place in these extreme environments. Authenticity was a hugely important goal for us-the authenticity of the environment helps with the authenticity of the performances. It's all one and the same."

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US landed in the picturesque community of Invermere in the Percell Mountain range at the southeast corner of British Columbia, Canada, which had precisely the right mix of extraordinary vistas and unforgiving terrain required to lend credibility and authenticity to the film. Before heading out to the remote site, however, Abu-Assad and his crew-including cinematographer Mandy Walker, production designer Patrice Vermette and costume designer Renée Ehrlich Kalfus-staged one of the film's most staggering set pieces on a Vancouver sound stage.

To simulate the terrifying plane crash and Alex and Ben live through, the production manufactured a replica fuselage, which was then mounted onto a gimbal and rigged for complex, unconventional camera moves. The fuselage itself was one complete set with no removable side walls-to access the interior, the actors had to climb through a small side window of the plane.

The crash scene, captured in one continuous travel shot, was achieved by mounting the camera onto a single cable that entered from the open nose of the aircraft. Guided by remote control, the camera travelled 360 degrees in coordinated movements to cover the actors' performances.

"We filmed the scene in one shot that Hany had designed, and it was amazing," Bridges says. "I'd never done anything like it in my life. The camera, mounted on a line, was moving back and forth inside the airplane. The section in the front had to come away so the camera could swing around and get me in the pilot seat and then it would move back to get Idris and Kate in the rear of the plane. The wind is howling, the plane is shaking-and what I especially loved about that shot was that it really needed everybody's efforts to pull it off."

Although the sequence required an immense amount of precision to film, Abu-Assad felt it was necessary to help create a sense for the audience of being trapped inside the plane with Alex and Ben. "We came up with the idea to be inside the airplane with one shot because, when cutting scenes together, the audience feels manipulated and not really part of the action," the director says. "By shooting it as one continuous scene, they are on board, sitting there with the other passengers. But how to execute it? It became an enormous merging of engineering, actors, and direction. The camera movements had to go fluently without disturbing the actors. It was not easy."

As difficult as the crash was to stage, it appeared simple next to the challenges that awaited the production once they arrived at the Percell Mountains in January 2016. Situated on the west side of the Rocky Mountain Trench, Percell's peaks are near or above 11,000 feet in elevation. All the high alpine areas were accessible only via three specialty Bell helicopters, designed and equipped to handle soaring altitudes.

Safety teams were on constant watch for threats from natural hazards such as avalanches, and sudden weather changes were another very real danger. If bad weather were to move in without warning, the helicopters might not have time to fly from the large landing field where they were stationed to the remote locations to transport the stars and the crew off the mountain and back to lower ground. The production positioned survival huts and survival gear at every location to allow those potentially left behind on the mountain a safe place to wait out any storm.

In an abundance of caution, just Winslet, Elba and essential crew flew to the highest elevations where, in addition to the cold, the thinner, high-altitude air made work much more physically demanding. Even breathing at such dizzying heights severely challenged the cast and skeleton crew.

"I'd never done anything even really close to this in terms of altitude," Winslet says. "Running at altitude is absolute agony. It makes your chest burn. I'm a strong, fit person, but that was one thing that I wasn't prepared for at all. You use so much more energy just to breathe when you're up that high. It was all really new to me how to keep ourselves warm, how to look after one another, how to feed yourselves properly, stay hydrated, all of those kinds of things. It was proper survival."

Cinematographer Walker (Tracks, Australia) was no stranger to filming in demanding environments, and her ingenuity knew no limits when planning shots in the wintery terrain: at one point, she mounted a camera on a sled made of snowboards to capture the perfect image for Abu-Assad.

Still, the biting cold presented an array of challenges in terms of the equipment alone- the cameras had to be kept in a heated truck to prevent the batteries from freezing, for example.

Planning was critical. "Once we were up on the mountain, we couldn't really come back down," Walker says. "So, we took all our lenses and were running two cameras at once. For some of the locations, we sent the equipment up a few days before and left it there, so we had things waiting for us. We also packed equipment into the smallest boxes possible to make transfers via helicopter on and off the mountain as quick as possible."

The extreme conditions did little to sway Abu-Assad from pursuing a startling cinematic vision-despite the unforgiving climate, he still sought to capture sweeping, majestic shots, again without relying on green screen or digital trickery. Walker even requested a custom lens from Panavision for certain scenes. "For him, the camera is all about storytelling," Walker says. "We don't do a lot of cuts or cutaways-it's not a handheld movie. We try and get the shot to tell the audience what's going on for the characters at that moment. We move in the way that they move and try to be in sync with their journey."

In some instances, trekking alongside Alex and Ben created its own set of problems. "Sometimes, we could do only one or two takes because once the characters made footprints, we couldn't go over the same piece of ground again," Walker says.

Likewise, two-time Academy Award-nominated production designer Patrice Vermette (Arrival, The Young Victoria) had to take early precautions to create the sets needed for the mountain scenes. Vermette's team constructed the plane in Vancouver and then oversaw its transport to the mountainous terrain. The fuselage, including part of a wing and the engine, was carried by helicopter to its resting place at 9,000 feet. The tail section, which is torn away in the crash, was placed at 9,500 feet on the edge of the Delphine glacier.

Every piece of the plane was weighed so that when it came time to airlift it into position, the helicopter pilots flying the crafts carrying the sets knew exactly how much they could safely carry on any given trip.

Because aircraft are constructed from lightweight materials and high alpine wind gusts can be exceedingly powerful, there was concern that the set pieces might be blown away once they were in position in the mountains. To keep them secure, they were fashioned to large 4 x 8 three-quarter inch steel plates buried in the snow. Still, the wind managed to blow one piece of the tail section off the mountain, and it was never recovered. With time in short supply, a second tail section had to be built, painted, aged and distressed in Vancouver then driven up to the mountains to be airlifted and anchored into position.

To further dress the area around the tail section, six 6' x 3' boulders were created out of foam, flown up by helicopter, and attached to large cross plates of wood, which were then buried in the snow. Mother Nature added the final dressing with even more snow.

Other principal mountain sets, including a stump-root shelter and the entrance to a snow dome cave, were built around the perimeter of the production's home base, a nearby plateau known as Horsethief Creek, where trailers, equipment trucks, generators, mobile units, and transportation vehicles were all staged. The area essentially acted as an on-location back lot, allowing Abu-Assad to continue to shoot even if the actual mountain locations were inaccessible.

The design team began their preparations in November, before the ground froze. The largest build was a dilapidated cabin where Ben and Alex shelter after she suffers a frightening fall through the ice into frigid waters below. "The idea with the cabin was to create something that was almost a ghostlike, ephemeral," says art director Cheryl Marion. "It's there, but unless you're really looking for it, you don't see it. When Ben first glimpses it, it's really not evident that it's there. And that was the whole point-that it had this ghostlike feel."

Like the plane's fuselage and tail, the cabin was built on a Vancouver stage and trucked more than 500 miles in often treacherous winter driving conditions to Horsethief Creek. There, over the course of eight days, it was reconstructed on a vast open field and then distressed to give the appearance that it was long abandoned. The production's greens team returned in early December, planting willows and larger trees to create a dramatic backdrop for the scene.

By the time cast and crew arrived at the beginning of January 2016 to begin filming, it was as if the sets had been a part of the landscape for many years.

"From the beginning Hany, Mandy and I wanted to have the authenticity of the landscape-not using green screen because I think there are so many green screen movies nowadays that the audience's eyes can pick up when it's real or not," Vermette says. "We wanted to have the real light, the real landscapes, the real precipice. Yes, it becomes much more difficult for production to go that route. But I think everybody was extremely proud of what was accomplished every day."

Executive producer Becki Cross Trujillo handled many of the complex logistics, consulting with the helicopter pilots and location manager Robin Mounsey to determine if it would be safe to film on a given day. If the all-clear was given, Trujillo would travel to the day's location with Abu-Assad, Walker, Mounsey, and first assistant director Paul Barry to ensure that the actors and the remainder of the necessary crew and equipment would be able to make it to the set from Horsethief Creek.

"If we could, they would drop us on the mountain and radio down," Trujillo says. "Everybody on the ground would start mobilizing to get all the equipment and other gear ready to come up in the other two helicopters. We never pushed to try to get up on the mountain when the pilots and location manager had concerns. They led that charge, and we trusted them because we wanted everybody to be safe."

In addition to protecting the cast, crew and equipment from frigid conditions, Trujillo was tasked with caring for canine cast member, Raleigh, who plays the other survivor of the crash, the pilot's dog. "He wore a human down jacket," Trujillo says. "He learned to wear goggles. They waxed his paws to protect them, and we kept shoes on him. He learned to get in and out of the helicopter, and we had a Styrofoam pad that we had him standing and laying on so that he was off the ice. It was a learning curve for him-luckily, he was a laid-back, wonderful dog. We could throw scarves and hats on him, and he was just fine with that."

The bitter cold proved relentless and unforgiving. The first week at the location saw an unusual weather inversion where temperatures in the valley were colder than those up in the high alpine. Sub-zero conditions caused truck engines, generators, camera gear and other equipment to freeze up or break down. Bales of hay were packed around all trucks, motor homes and trailers to keep heat contained. Frostbite was a concern. In all, THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US spent 18 days in the harsh terrain.

"It was truly really freezing cold," Winslet says. "In fact, there was one day on the mountain where every single thing we shot we did it in one take, because it was just so darn cold you had to get through it. Even taking off your gloves for two seconds was excruciating."

Costume designer Renée Ehrlich Kalfus was mindful of the severe weather conditions the cast would be exposed to for the entire time they were filming on the mountain, and she did what she could to mitigate the actors' discomfort. "They really didn't complain about the cold," she says. "They had warmers, electric socks, battery run mittens, but their faces were exposed."

Dressed as he is in fashionable city wear, Ben is particularly ill-prepared for the frigid temperatures and the rugged terrain. "He's elegant in his cashmere coat and his leather city boots," Kalfus says. But Walter, the ill-fated pilot, was far better outfitted for the bone-chilling climes. "Because the pilot dies, he puts on the pilot's clothes," Kalfus says. "So, Idris, in effect, is really acting in somebody else's costume for much of the movie, which was kind of an interesting thing that he went through as an actor. Because the costumes really define who they are."

For Kalfus, the chief challenge was creating costumes that not only spoke to the characters' identities-Alex as a resourceful photojournalist, Ben as a wealthy neurosurgeon-but also would hold visual interest for the duration of the film. "I had to create an original look that could sustain itself through most of the movie," she says. "I was keyed in to adding a lot of texture and color and framing the face and silhouettes and giving this classic look to both of them that we, as the audience, would not tire of."

Ultimately, the mountain shoot required all departments to be flexible and rise to the demands of ever changing conditions and schedules, knowing that each day still brought only six hours of usable daylight. "It wasn't easy at all, actually," Abu-Assad says. "Many times, I would look at the crew and feel like we were crazy. Why we are doing this? But then we did it, and I'm very glad. I'm proud that we did it this way."

Cast and crew were gratified by what they accomplished during their time in the Percell Mountains-capturing remarkable performances in imposing and formidable terrain, and the vast and stunning grandeur of the landscape as well. Despite the physical hardships, Elba was quick to point out that, "These mountains are beautiful, the views go on forever, and you feel quite special. I felt very privileged to be able to make this movie and see these vistas that probably not many human beings will ever get to see in real life."

Says Chernin, "From the very beginning, we felt that this movie had to look extraordinary. It had to look on the scale and scope of the kind of movies that very seldom get made today. This is a movie about survival. This is a movie about people being pushed to the edges of human tolerance and endurance. What they have put themselves through is extraordinary."


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